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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Senior citizens deserve more


Just a few days back Bangladesh, along with different countries of the world observed the International Senior Citizens Day. Like the previous years the activities of the day was basically limited to the utterance of inane platitudes about the importance of respecting and utilising the wisdom of the senior citizens. People here often proudly say that the elderly here are treated in a much better manner compared to Western countries. Well the ground reality is quite different.
I don’t know how many of our readers are aware of the fact that the allowance for the elderly citizens of the country (boyoshko bhata) amounts to Taka 300 a month per person. Isn’t Tk 300 for a person per month a pittance? In these days of high prices of essential commodities what this   meagre amount can purchase for a person? Isn’t it a mockery? A person needs food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Can the allowance meet even a small fraction of the needs? Then why it is for?” Well nobody seems to have any answer to these questions.
The allowance of Taka 300 is but one example of the hollowness of the claim that we respect and care for our senior citizens. While there is some level of respect, rise in materialistic values has taken away the real reverence that our society once had for the elderly. Unfortunately, for all our talk about ‘respecting age’, we regard wrinkles and grey hair with a measure of horror.
When we talk of our demographic advantage, it is always about youth. When we talk of our demographic challenge, it is inevitably about ageing. Who will bear the cost of longevity? Do we have the institutional structures in place? What is the burden of caring for the elderly?
The youth in general are losing the age-old custom of respect and are also becoming less concerned about the older persons. Prevalence of nuclear culture, lack of cross-generation interaction, less social interaction with older persons, age discrimination, lack of social security system in Bangladesh, can be cited as the most important reasons for the miserable condition of many older persons.
The age-discrimination is a core concern in all societies. Discrimination against people on grounds of age in Bangladesh is growing at a steady pace. Persons aged 60 years and above are considered as senior citizens, although the retiring age from any profession as decided by many countries ranges from 59 to 65.
The elder population is a fast-growing segment of Bangladesh society nowadays. Every year, approximately 80,000 new older persons enter the group of the older persons who, in general, constitute a socially and economically vulnerable group with the basic needs remaining unmet in many cases. By 2050, it is estimated that the number of people over 60 will be approximately equal to the number of children under 14. The number of people over 75 is increasing faster than any other group.
The average life span of Bangladeshis has increased a lot in the last few decades due to improvement in medical and social services, which has also witnessed decrease in child mortality. About 6 per cent people of the country were above 60 or of higher age in
2006, and it is presumed that the number will go up to 17 per cent
in 2050.
Due to physical limitations, millions of the older people across the world pass through chronic poverty, untreated illness, homelessness or inadequate shelter, violence and abuse, lack of education, little or no access to law, fear and isolation. The older people may face difficulties in the following key areas: physical and mental health; community care; social care; housing; transport; employment; income; education and leisure; utilities and consumer protection; access to information; and decision-making. The older age can result in decreased mobility, impairment of sight, hearing and weaker muscle strength, as well as greater vulnerability to heat and cold.
Minor conditions can quickly deteriorate into major handicaps that overwhelm older persons' ability to cope with. They have difficulty accessing services, and are less able or less willing to flee quickly or to protect themselves from harm in hostile situations. For instance, older persons have more difficulty accessing distribution points and carrying heavy supplies, while the loss of eyeglasses or walking canes can render them dependent on others.
The constitution clearly declares in article 15(D) that the Government should introduce social security programme for the insolvent elderly population. However the only visible support to the older persons is the earlier mention 'old age allowance' (Boyosko Bhata) of Taka 300.
In Bangladesh the elderly have to visit different government offices for various purposes. The norm here is to have senior citizens visit these offices in person regardless of their health or physical condition. No senior citizen counters exist at these offices, or if they do they are non-operational. This is far from the values taught in schools: to respect, to help and to facilitate senior citizens. Officials should be trained to be patient while dealing with senior citizens. Their attitude shows that either standard operating procedures don’t state how to deal with senior citizens or, if they do, they are not taught, followed and monitored in practical life.
Family members who have to shoulder the responsibility of care-giving should educate themselves about an elderly person’s specific needs including psycho-sociological, dietary, physical, mental and emotional requirements. Awareness about a condition and its related issues can help them understand the patient’s behaviour, such as aggression, and seeking professional counselling on how to deal with these issues can make care-giving easier.
It is a shocking fact that many elderly parents being abused and abandoned by their children and it is not just an urban phenomenon. In rural Bangladesh too extended family system is eroding, with the younger generation increasingly heading off to cities with their spouses and their children to start a new life – without their parents or grandparents. And there are the financial issues. Those who have worked in government service or for reputable private companies receive pensions, but a large majority of the population still work as farmers or day labourers. Once they are too old to work, they are forced to rely on their children or extended family for support which is often not forthcoming.
 It is a fact of life that everyone wants to live long but no one wants to grow old. Old age is viewed as an unavoidable, undesirable, problem-ridden phase of life that we all are compelled to live, biding time  until our life exits from life itself. Perceiving old age with fear is actually a rather recent phenomenon.
In earlier days, when life was simple and values counted for more, those who reached a ripe old age held an enviable place in society, where they could really relax and enjoy their twilight years, secure in the knowledge that they still commanded attention, respect and affection, and that though they were well past their prime, all that they had given their best for are still important and so were they.
 It is when one loses this sense of importance whether in one's own eyes or others that life becomes a problem.  And it is a diminishing sense of importance– whatever the reason–that plays havoc with the lives of elderly.
When one enters the final room of life called the old age, there lurks a terrible feeling or redundancy in every corner of the room.  This begins right from the time when one retires from productive service at a not-so-old age, and when the next generation grows up, moves away, emerges from gestation.
 Irrespective of individual status or achievement, senior citizens have the right to expect to be held in esteem and treated with consideration and dignity because of age alone.  In old age people always are interested in communicating their practical experience to the coming generations to face the realities of life.  
What shines towards everything they had to say is an exiting attitude towards life. The wisdom they have is a product of experience that comes from years of trying and failing; trying and succeeding; getting involved discovering the various aspects such as in job; raising kids; knowing what causes happiness; knowing how to keep business, considering oneself lucky to care for others.
I strongly believe that the senior citizens must have the following rights :

1. Senior citizens must have the right to expect to be held in esteem and treated with consideration and dignity because of age `alone'.
2. They have full right to independence, privacy, and choice of persons with whom they like or live and associate with; they also have the right not to fear abridgement of those rights because of advancing age.
3. It is up to the government decision as far as health is concerned. Old people irrespective of retirement from service should also be cared for medical treatment from a person who has knowledge with compassion.
4. They have the right to manage their financial affairs, as well as the right to complete information and full disclosure of possible consequences from those through whom they seek assistance with the management of those affairs.
5. They should have the right to freedom from fear of mental and physical abuse, as well as from chemical or physical restraint except in medical emergencies.
6. Senior citizens have the full right to choose how and with whom they spend leisure time, as well as the right to choose considerate assistance when they move or travel.
7. Loneliness is pervasive in this digital world of today. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Some may prefer being by themselves throughout their lives. But others may find themselves suddenly alone. Such people should be noted and taken care off by the society.
 We should extend all possible help that any senior citizen requires. Becoming a senior citizen should not necessarily mean retirement from active life. Senior citizens can and in many cases do contribute to the society. Should a senior citizen be in good health and keen to do a job, every opportunity should be extended to enable them to train the young or budding people to have utilisation of pragmatism. We should not accept the loss of experience earned by senior citizens. Experience of senior citizens is wealth without any measurement criteria.
Of course many in Bangladesh do try to look after their parents, grandparents and other elderly relatives as much they can within their means. In fact, many of us take them as a blessing for us. However this sense of respect for seniors evaporates when we are outside our homes. We never think about the problems they might have whether we are standing in a queue or shopping or travelling. In my visits to Europe something that really impressed me is that at many shopping malls there are small battery-operated carts for senior citizens parked at the entrance.
They comfortably sit in these carts, move about to do the shopping and then park the cart back at the entrance when they are done. Then they are allowed concessions on many purchases. At many places there are separate windows to serve senior citizens. Recently a friend of mine went to Istanbul, Turkey. He said that the respect the Turkish people show to elders (not just their relatives) is very moving. Just to give an example he narrated an incident which really touched me.
Lots of people travel in the thickly packed fast-moving buses. These have few seats but large standing space. On many occasions people gave up seats for the senior citizens. When such culture and such facilities will develop in this country to give some respect, some consideration to senior citizens in the twilight of their life?

The writer is Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at:

Source:  The Independent, 05 October 2015

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